Your company’s purpose will not be found by commissioning a white paper or creating a complicated strategy document. It will emerge organically from an honest interrogation of what you’re truly about, what your people are about, and what feels easy to stand behind.
Now that having a social purpose is essential for businesses that want to maintain consumer brand loyalty and attract quality employees, more and more executives are looking for ways to jump in. Busy with deadlines, budgets, KPIs and the like, some may turn to expensive agencies or “thought leaders” for advice. But beware of those who create slick PowerPoint presentations with fancy graphics and tight slogans making a case for the issues your customers care about; and why you should care about them, too.
This is a backwards way of going about finding your company’s purpose.
Just because your target market cares about certain issues doesn’t mean these should dictate your company’s social mission. Even if you find a nonprofit willing to go through the massive procurement process required for a potentially glorified partnership, the campaign won’t be effective if it doesn’t stem from something true to who you are.
A far more efficient and authentic process to finding your company’s purpose is to first go within. Start by asking your executives and frontline employees questions such as:
“Without quoting any marketing materials or official statements, what do you think this company is all about?”
“When was a time you were proud to work here?”
“What do you want your work to be known for?”
These types of open-ended conversation-starters often lead to emotional responses, and always reveal a foundational truth about a company. This is the crucial first step in becoming purposeful. From this process, ideas about how to generate positive social impact will naturally emerge that will resonate with your customers, precisely because they are authentic.
What happens if you proceed with purpose initiatives before understanding what your company is truly about? You could end up with failed, superficial campaigns that are a big waste of everybody’s time and money — or worse, alienate your target audience. Dior’s attempt to dive “deep into the Native American soul” by releasing its new fragrance, “Sauvage,” for example, was immediately labeled cultural appropriation and pulled off the air. Pepsi is still healing from its attempt to protest police brutality by purporting that soda and Kendall Jenner can save the day. These campaigns may have looked good in glossy PowerPoint presentations, but when brought out into the sunlight, they made no sense — because they were irrelevant to both Dior’s and Pepsi’s corporate identities.
On the flip side, REI — whose purpose is about improving people’s lives by encouraging time spent in nature — has been rightly celebrated for its #OptOutside campaign, when the company went against the traditional Black Friday grain by closing its stores, and instead paid its employees to take the day off to be outdoors. There wasn't a cause called, “Go Outside”; the brand just took its internal truth and boldly made it external. Same for The Home Depot’s oldie-but-goodie commitment to build or refurbish 1,000 play spaces around the country in partnership with KaBOOM!, a nonprofit committed to creating places to play within walking distance of every child in the US. Home Depot isn’t about playgrounds, or even children, for that matter; but the company found a way to apply its purpose — building — to create positive social impacts.
The other benefit of leading with purpose from the inside out is that fear of failure should not be a factor. If the cause feels true to your company, go for it. Don’t overthink. Be proud and confident enough to take a stand without worrying about the response. Abide by the mantra of the old “Saturday Night Live” character, Stuart Smalley, who loved to recite his personal mantra: “I am good enough, I am smart enough; and doggone it, people like me.” In other words, believe in yourself.
Your company’s purpose will not be found by commissioning a thoroughly researched white paper or creating a complicated strategy document; but rather, by unearthing what it already is. It will emerge organically from an honest interrogation of what you’re truly about, what your people are about, and what feels easy to stand behind. From there, get to work putting the idea on its feet by designing real-world engagements and activations. Then evaluate to see what worked, and what can be improved. But don’t ever digress from the core of who you are, as that is your corporate purpose.